Book review

Lord Beaverbrook
by David Richards Adams
Penguin, 176 pages,   $20.00

One of the first three releases in the Extraordinay Canadians series, Lord Beaverbrook portrays a man who drew equal amounts of praise and vilification  from his contemporaries. Credited with saving Britain from the Nazis during World War II and at the same time denigrated for his anti-establishment attitude and the content of his newspapers, Max Aitken was a tough little imp whose impact on British and Canadian society  is today largely forgotten.

Written by fellow New Brunswicker David Adams Richards, one senses the  novelist’s touch in the narrative, for while chronicling the frequently picaresque activities of Aitken, Richards  never clings to the moral high ground.  It ‘s as though  the biographer is looking with satisfaction at a character he has created, part scallywag, part hero.

Born in Ontario in 1879 to a Presbyterian minister and his wife, Max Aitken moved with his parents to Newcastle, New Brunswick at he age of one. But Max’s restess spirit soon chafed at  life in the Manse and the agony of listening to father’s sermons; he bred hens and sold their eggs to neighbours and by the age of 13 was publishing his own local newspaper which he circulated in the community.

Inevitably, he became keenly interested in politics and met R.B. Bennett who would eventually become prime minister of Canada. Always able to capture the imagination of his elders Aitken ran Bennett’s   successful campaign to necome alderman of a new municiplity in New Brunswick. Max enrolled in law school but never completed the course. He became a door-to-door bond salesman and four years later had talked his way into being appointed general manager of Royal Securities Corporation.

His marriage to the gracious and beautiful Montrealer Gladys Drury raised eyebrows in circles that considered the brash New Brunswicker not quite “out of the top drawer,” and involvement in what became known as the Canada Cement Scandal which left him a  millionaire added further toxicity to his reputation.  In 1910 he decamped with his family to London and the seat of an empire about which its component parts knew little of each other. The idea of the British Empire became his ideal and  free trade between its nations was Aitken’s unfulfilled obsession.

Max Aitken entered politics and quickly became a member of Parliament to the detriment of his relationship with Gladys. Although they remained married until her death,  while she and the famly remained at their country estate he maintained private quarters in a London flat; there he bedded a number of women who found the diminutive imp with the tousled hair attractive.

But his moral conduct hardly went aganst him in Conservative party circles; he was knighted in 1911 and elevated to the peerage in 1917.  David  Llloyd George, Liberal prime minister of the wartime coalition appointed him Mminister of Propaganda, a title he quickly changed to Minister of Inforation.

His taste for communication whetted, Beaver, as he became known, started the Daily Express in 1920 and then the Evening Standard and Sunday Express,  all of which displayed a tendency to sensationalize the news. He continued to make as many enemies as friends. among whom  were Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and Foreign Miniser Neville Chamberlain for their weakness in confronting Hitler’s rise to Power.

In 1940, Britain’s darkest hour, with Neville Chamberlain gone and his old friend Winston Churchill in power, Beaver’s papers were pressing hard for reforms to strengthen the British swar effort.    During the onset of the Battle of Britain as Nazi planes filled the skies over Britain and all RAF planes were in the air,  only five aircraft remained on he ground! Churchill appointed Beaver minister of aircraft production and withon six months by hook, and some say by crook, he had achieved the extraordinary total of 6,400 new aircraft. Reward for this stroke of manipulative genius, was his being appointed minister of all wartime productio

To those of us in the UK during 1940 and 41, there remained no doubt that the air war was critical and Beaver’s actions propped up Great Britain until Hitler’s ill-chosen invasion of the USSR and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour brought new allies to our side.

This was undoubtedly Beaver’s finest hour along with that of the beseiged British people. At war’s end he saw his dream of Empire Free Trade dissolving with the birth of India and Pakistan and although remaining in politics for several more years, he seems gradually to have lost interest in all but his newspapers and their ability to express his points of view. His wife died, followed years later by his favourite mistress Jean Norton. He was to marry again in 1963, to Lady Christofor Dunne, widow of a friend, Canadian financier Sir James Dunne

Having established philanthropic organizations benefting New Brunswick, his visits home were infequent and short. Ill health overtook him and he died in England in 1964. Richards recalls,  as a schoolboy in Newcastle attending the ceremony on a fine fall day at which Beaver’s ashes were placed in a bust which stands in the town square.

“The wanderer was now, at long last, back home.”

In one slim volume, Richards has given us a lively biography of a man who was sometimes a hero, always a contrarian, even a a rogue: but never a bore. It is a credit to the Extraordinary Canadians series that its editor-in-chief, John Ralston Saul,  chose a novelist with  the talents of New Brunswicker David Adams Richards to tell such an intriguing story.

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One Response to “Book review”

  1. admin Says:

    An afterthought. Has anyone thoughtof sendng a review copy to Conrad Black?
    B.V.

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